6.4.4 Interest Groups and Pressure Groups

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/644.htm)

The term ‘interest group’ is used here to mean a group of people with a shared interest, which may not be primarily political.  Any such group may wish to influence specific political decisions that affect them, by putting pressure on politicians.  Some of these groups, such as Amnesty International, are global.

Interest groups have several mechanisms available to them in democracies: they can lobby politicians directly, promising to bring them popular support; they can offer them money, as described in the next section (6.4.5); and they can influence public opinion by using marketing techniques such as advertising, holding public events and publishing opinions in the media.

Some organisations have exploited the Internet and used propaganda techniques (6.4.2.6) to make a big political impact, as reported by The Economist in A Breitbart future for example:

“Its formula—outraging and fascinating readers with “click bait”, occasional fake news, polemics and attacks on mainstream media—has taken off.”

“It already has a website in Britain and in January it will launch French and German sites.”

Breitbart’s readership was expanding rapidly and was becoming comparable in scale with traditional media outlets.  Its financial backers include a supporter of Donald Trump and it was credited with helping the latter to win the American presidency in 2016.

In an authoritarian political system, interest groups can be very useful in influencing the appropriate level of government services.  Transparent and fair interactions with interest groups add legitimacy in an authoritarian system, giving it a degree of negotiability (6.3.1.8).

Interest groups include the following:

  • ‘Political pressure groups’ like Breitbart are formed with the prime purpose of influencing policy. They also include political parties (6.2.6), their sub-sections (which are sometimes known as ‘splinter groups’), think tanks, Local Residents’ Associations etc.
  • People with a shared ethnicity may form organisations for various social purposes which, in the case of religious organisations for example, may have formal governance structures of their own.  These ethnic organisations may become politically active, as ‘ethnic interest groups’ on topics of particular or concern to them.
  • Economic organisations – which include Chambers of Commerce, Employers’ Federations and Trade Unions – are usually formed with the prime purpose of exerting power in the Economic Dimension, but they may also become active as ‘economic interest groups’ in the Political Dimension of governance. Trade Unions, for example, can press for improvements in legislation on employment protection and to increase the minimum wage.
  • ‘Environmental interest groups’ – which include major names like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife and also a host of smaller groups – are active in supporting environmental improvement projects but are also involved in influencing public opinion and politicians.

Representatives of interest groups exert political influence, but they differ from politicians as defined in this book (6.1.2) in that they have not been given powers to act on behalf of the people as a whole.  Some individuals within interest groups may have been formally elected to have a governance role in the group context, and some may be assigned specific responsibilities for influencing politicians on behalf of their groups.

Interest groups don’t have rights as such; their role is to represent the interests and protect the rights of their members.  Members strengthen the groups they belong to, both financially and politically, by paying subscriptions and being registered as supporting them.  The members don’t have to be politically active themselves, but they know that, if necessary, their views will be represented by the group.

Interest groups can also represent their members in consultation processes; this is a different role from applying unsolicited pressure – but it is equally important (6.5.3.2).  Governments may consult economic interest groups when deciding upon economic regulations, for example.

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